The folding and presentation of the flag.
A rifle volley salute.
Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry
Bronze and aluminum markers like those pictured indicate the graves of veterans and the eras in which they served.
Military funeral honors are a final stage in our country's show of respect for its veterans.
In October, it was announced that veterans in large areas of Pennsylvania would be denied that benefit.
Thanks to actions that originated in Warren County, there have been no reports that veterans have been denied military funeral benefits.
"Due to budget cuts from the National Guard Bureau we were anticipating having to limit our funeral honor burial detail to a 100-mile radius from national cemeteries in Philadelphia and Annville," Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Spokesperson Joan Nissley said.
She said there are only 15 soldiers in the detail that performs the honors. The budget allowed for 2,500 funerals in 2012. At the end of the fiscal year in September, the soldiers had performed more than 3,600 funeral honors details for veterans in good standing.
If the funerals are in one of the national cemeteries close to the home base of the detail soldiers and several are on the same day, the budget is stretched. If the funerals are farther afield, the budget has to cover travel, lodging, and other expenses. "It costs much more for us to perform that detail," Nissley said.
In an Oct. 11 memo, the office of the Adjutant General informed funeral directors of the 100-mile limitation.
One of the recipients of that memorandum was Mike Lewis of Donald E. Lewis Funeral Home in Warren.
"I was mad," Lewis said. "A lot of my families appreciate members from the branch of the service where they served to present the flag to them."
The combined Clarendon and Sheffield VFWs provide certain honors - a three-volley salute, playing taps, and a service - at veterans' funerals. "They do a fabulous job," Lewis said. But the folding and presentation of the flag is most appropriate for soldiers in the branch in which the veteran served.
The U.S. Army, out of Fort Meade, Md., can also assist families of veterans in Pennsylvania with paperwork and making arrangements for a two- to six-soldier detail, depending on availability, for funeral honors, according to Chief of Media Relations Mary Doyle.
But the Pennsylvania National Guard had announced it would not.
"When I found out we were going to be shortchanged because we are more than 100 miles from Fort Indiantown Gap, that wasn't a good enough reason," Lewis said.
He contacted Warren County Veterans Affairs Director Ed Burris to see what could be done.
"The military funeral is a tribute to those that have served their country," Burris said. "It's a sign of respect from those still living to the service that the deceased has given to his or her country."
"You can't take care of the southern part of the state and ignore the northern," he said.
Burris got in touch with his counterparts in other counties and the office that announced the change.
"I sent an email to the Deputy Adjutant General for Veterans Affairs," he said. "I sent email out to all of the county (VA) directors asking them to touch base with their representatives and senators."
A few days later, Deputy Adjutant General Michael Gould sent an email to Burris saying he'd heard $1 million had been added to the budget for the funeral details.
"Your email made that happen," Gould wrote to Burris.
The situation seemed to be settled, but the objections were moving higher.
On Nov. 21, Burris received a copy of a letter that was sent to Adjutant General Wesley Craig by State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee Chairperson Lisa Baker.
"We were shocked and saddened to learn that the Pennsylvania Army National Guard Funeral Honors program has been arbitrarily limited to within a 100-mile radius of Philadelphia and Annville," the senators wrote. "The decision to restrict this final tribute to our heroes was undertaken without notice or consultation. We urgently request a reversal of this policy so that all veterans, regardless of their place of passing, can be honored with the final farewell they have so courageously earned through their honorable service to our nation and our commonwealth."
"Fortunately the National Guard Bureau came through and we were able to rescind that memo," Nissley said. "We were given the additional funding and we are going to be able to assist throughout the state."
Burris credits Lewis for the righting of the wrong.
Lewis could have accepted the memo and moved on.
"Mike made people aware," Burris said. "It was the right thing to do."